When tiny Brunei gets a cardinal …

God is my best friend. I talk to God every day. And no one can tell me how to talk to God — not no imam, not no priest, not no rabbi, no pastor. – Unknown

I have a confession to make. I know next to nothing about the Catholic Church in Brunei.

That’s a shame really as I am a Catholic in Sarawak and Brunei is my next-door neighbour.

I have never stepped on Brunei soil but had made two stopovers at Bandar Seri Begawan Airport in the past. That was the closest I had embraced Brunei physically.

Until this week, I also knew next to nothing about His Eminence Cornelius Sim of Brunei except that he was created cardinal on November 28, 2020.

In fact, I was mistaken about His Eminence’s birthplace as I had thought all along that Sim is a Miri-born Sarawakian who was appointed Bishop of the newly-created Diocese of Brunei in 2004.

I had probably strayed because the Brunei Catholic Church was placed under the responsibility of the Bishop of Miri before its elevation to the Apostolic Vicariate of Brunei Darussalam.

Only this week, I came to know that Sim is actually a native of Brunei — he was born in Seria to a Catholic family in 1951.

I’m not sure how I suddenly read up on the new cardinal as the news is actually five months old. But I’m so glad I did. Sim’s elevation to a cardinal in a tiny nation like Brunei is more significant than many would have thought.

For Catholics everywhere, the creation of a cardinal is “big deal” and if their local bishop has been chosen to be a “Prince of His Holy Church”, it is a day of great rejoicing within the diocese.

The announcement of Sim’s elevation in October last year was a quiet affair in the mainstream Malaysian press. Only Catholic publications carried the news wider through their printed and online versions.

Cardinal Soter Fernandez, Malaysia’s first and only cardinal died the same month Sim’s appointment was announced. Soter was 85 when created a cardinal in 2016.

Sim is 69 today. This means that Sim is eligible to vote in a conclave and even be considered a papal candidate over the next 11 years should something happen to Pope Francis. The cut-off age for a voting cardinal is 80.    

This is my first note of significance on Sim’s appointment. A first Asian Pope, and from Borneo — this could never be discounted. However, it’s a long, long shot. I’ll place my betting odds to that happening at probably 0.05 to 10. 

The Asian cardinal who came closest to being a potential papal candidate was the late Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Metro Manila. He was recognised as the spiritual leader of Catholic Philippines and was also instrumental in the overthrow of the Marcos regime in 1986. 

I was blessed with the opportunity to interview Cardinal Sin in Manila in 1983 with a group of Malaysian journalists, three years before the People’s Power revolution that brought Cory Aquino into power. The Filipino prelate died in 2005.

What also stood out in Sim’s elevation is this. As Brunei has only a small Catholic population of 20,000, Pope Francis must have very strong reasons to appoint a cardinal from Brunei.

The Brunei diocese is one of the smallest in Asia, with only one bishop and three priests. Brunei is a Muslim nation and was recently noted for its adoption of Sharia law.

Why did Pope Francis appoint a cardinal from a nation with such a small Catholic population? Why not a cardinal from Malaysia (Cardinal Soter had passed on) or Singapore?

Perhaps the Holy Father must have noticed something really special in Sim. I can only speculate. But in the Pope’s infinite wisdom, that’s also his secret to keep, I suppose.

We will never know what was on the Pope’s mind when he chose the Princes of the Church. As Sim also sits in the Catholic Bishops Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, he could be Holy Father’s choice to lead the Catholic flock in the region and act as the mentor for the younger bishops succeeding many who had retired.

The new cardinal is quite a guy too — A self-described ‘crypto-charismatic’.

Bishop Sim, 69, was born in Seria, Brunei, and is of Chinese and Dusunic descent. An engineering graduate from Scotland, he worked in Brunei for seven years before starting his priestly studies. When ordained in 1989, he was Brunei’s second local priest.

He was named vicar general of Brunei in 1995 and two years later, Prefect of the Apostolic Prefecture of Brunei.

In 2004, Pope John Paul II appointed him Vicar Apostolic of Brunei, and he received episcopal consecration in 2005.

Sim once said, “My path to the priesthood is a little bit weird. Number one, I never wanted to be a priest. I kind of got hijacked into this job”.

And that’s no ordinary job — A Prince of the Church — for Cornelius Sim today.

Godspeed, Your Eminence.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.